The 2nd Annual World Congress of Imams and Rabbis being held in Seville, where Jews florished eight centuries ago under Muslim rule, has seen unprecedented expressions of harmony and respect between Israeli and disapora rabbis on one hand and top imams from around the world on the other.
In sharp contrast, a contentious relationship emerged between the Israeli delegation and a group of imams and scholars from the Palestinian territories.
Palestinian imams and scholars demanded that that the conference, which convened March 19 and concluded last night, drop its religious focus and deal with political reality in the Holy Land.
But there were modest steps forward even on that front. Israeli rabbis, led by Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, reassured nervous imams they have no desire to take over the Temple Mount or harm Al-Aqsa. The rabbis offered to work together with imams in Gaza to help ease the humanitarian crisis confronting Palestinians there.
Many imams at this conference, convened here by Paris-based peace organization Hommes de Parole, headed by wealthy philasnthropise Alain Michel, under the patronage of the King of Morocco, Dr. Muzammil Saddiqi, imam of the Muslim community of Orange County California, said, "I have been involved in interfaith dialogue for decades but have never met with so many Jews in one place. The fact that so many rabbis are here, including so many from Israel, shows a willingness by Jews to dialogue with Muslims that must be acknowledged by our side, which gives hope for a more civilized world." Saddiqi also publicly condemned suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israeli civilians, stating, "These acts give Muslims around the world a bad name and place us in a very difficult position."
Imam Mahmoud Fantar of Tunisia remarked, "This meeting is very important and hopeful because it shows the possibility of productive dialogue between Jews and Muslims and that ultimately we are responsible for one another. Of course, there are extremist voices among Muslims today, just as there are among Jews, but if we moderate Jews and Muslims of faith work together, we can overcome the callks to violence, and make an important contribution to peace and reconcilation."
By contrast, from the opening ceremonial session, when a call by Metzger to imams to speak out against suicide bombing brought an angry threat of a walkout from the head of the 10 member Palestinian delegation, Imam Imad Falouji, former PA Minister of Communications and Transport, Palestinians here have bitterly demanded that the conference focus on alleged Israeli injustices against their people. The Palestinian imams, who stress that they came here as individuals, and have no connection with Hamas or the new PA government, charge Michel and the conference organizers of being biased in favor of the Israelis. According to Nabil Dukhan, a professor at the Islamic University in Gaza, "The organizers do not want to deal with reality on the ground and instead talk about spiritual concerns. That is useless for us. When I go home, our people will ask what we accomplished to ease their suffering and I will have nothing to say." Dukhan added, "Our diuscussions with the Israeli rabbis have been almost useless, because they tell us they cannot influence the government or army to ease the blocade strangling our people."
BY comparison, the Israeli rabbis were much more upbeat. Rabbi Metzger commented, "I used to think there was no one to talk to on the other side, but then decided, diplomacy hasnt worked in our area, so lets try talking to each other. It has been gratifying for me to be having such positive interchanges with Muslim religious leaders from around the world. It has been harder to talk productively with the Palestinians here, but at least they know now that they can talk to Israeli rabbis and that the Chief Rabbi of Israel will not pull a gun on them."
Rabbi Zion Cohen of Sderot, said that Palestinian imams had approached him and other Israeli rabbis and expressed alarm that the Israeli government intends to seize the Temple Mount and destroy Al Aqsa. According to Cohen, "We assured them that the Israeli rabbinate has forbidden Jews to step on the Temple Mount and we will not go there until the Messiah comes. I believe they heard us on that regard."
In a workshop Tuesday, one Palestinian imam, Mahmoud Muhabbash of Nuseirat in Gaza who said that his people are hungry because of the Israeli blocade and no rabbis ever protest IDF killing of Palestinian civilians, seemed surprised when Rabbi Cohen offered to work with him and other Jews and Muslims here to try to get foodstuffs to the people of Nuseirat and open an ongoing channel of communication between his community and Nuseirat. Muhabbash, who said he had pleased with his own youth not to become suicide bombers but doubted Israeli rabbis had denounced IDF killing of Palestinian civilians, accepted Cohen s proposal, stating, "Inshallah, let us try. But bread can only be the first step. There must also be justice." Rabbi Ronald Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, who reminded Muhabbash that many rabbis have spoken for peace and condemned violence against Palestians, "I felt there was a lot of active listening in the workshop and many people heard the narrative of the Other for the first time. After all, how often do Jews get to converse seriously with an imam from Gaza?"
According to Cohen, "Despite losing a close relative to a Kassam rocket fired at Sderot from Gaza, I feel deeply for the people of Gaza and want to help allievate their plight. If Palestinians feel that we care about them as fellow human beings and are genuinely trying to help, I believe we will be able to build ongoing channels of communication between the people of Sha'ar Hanegev and of Gaza."
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